Eric Owens Gives Alberich a Therapy Session at Carnegie Hall

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“You’re still here!” shouted Eric Owens with feigned surprise after the intermission at Zankel Hall last night. “Were they serving alcohol? Did you have some? If you didn’t, then go get some.”

The bass-baritone wasn’t kidding. In the first half of his his Carnegie recital debut program -- a mix of lieder by Wolf, Schumann and Schubert -- themes touched on madness, unrequited love, supposed infanticide at the hands of birds and raging against the gods. The second half, devoted to French mélodie and chanson, didn’t promise much cheeriness either.

In fact, the overall effect of Owens’s recital was not unlike that of reading the therapy poems of Alberich, Owens’s role in the Met’s Ring Cycle. Schubert’s “Prometheus” rings as a directly correlated incantation against Wotan, starting with the declaration “Cover your heavens, Zeus…But you must allow my world to stand.” There’s fervent treasure digging in Schumann’s “Der Schatzgräber” that may as well be Alberich still clawing for his Rhine gold (apt that Schumann himself would attempt suicide by jumping into the same river). The final lines before intermission, from Schubert’s “Group from Tartarus” are the prophetic “Eternity whirls above them in circles, breaking Saturn’s scythe in two,” accompanied by a Mephistophelean grin from Owens.

Guten tag, Götterdämmerung.

Owens as Alberich in
Das Rheingold at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard

Seeing Owens out of Nibelungian costume, in a modest black tunic and pants, and standing on a bare stage with no more than a piano (lusciously played by Atlanta Symphony music director, Robert Spano in a rare moment off of the podium), you’re reminded of how little technical flash and pomp good music actually needs. In the first half of his program, he gave imagery to each word, often balancing diametrically opposed factions in the process. In Wolf’s Three Poems by Michelangelo, he gave a stentorian and hushed read of the line “lost to me,” before floating up to Valhalla  in the final couplet. In the same cycle, there was a damp chill in the next lied’s line “Everything ends which comes to be. Everything everywhere passes away.”

The fall of the world was cushioned with some velvety safety nets, like the final of Wolf’s Michelangelo lieder and Duparc’s heady, exotic and somewhat dangerous “L’invitation au voyage.” The calm of the latter, delivered with a silvered tone, came as a bipolar pairing with the tumultuous “La vague et la cloche.” Owens brightened up the mood a bit with Ravel’s irony-cloaked trio of works, Don Quixote à Dulcinée before launching once more into the epic Les deux grenadiers, which interpolates the Marseillaise into a story of two soldiers returning to France after the Napoleonic wars.

The unlikely composer of this work, which unifies the two halves of the recital’s whole, was no less than Richard Wagner. The connections one can draw from his piece to the rest in the program, on both sides of the border, are endless and leave you wondering whether to laugh or cry.  Zankel Hall is less accommodating to the flowing intricacies of the French language as it is to the more consonant-laden German, but where subtleties were muffled, Owens made up for it in a dynamic and magnetic presence onstage.

Offstage, Owens is an ebullient presence—nothing like his Wagnerian character or the narrators of his liederabend. Before his first encore (a more restrained “Music for a while” by Henry Purcell), he signaled out his childhood piano teacher in the audience. He then came back for a second work that he called “my answer to the Schumann set.” You realized Owens said that with tongue planted firmly in cheek when he then launched into a moving “Shall We Gather at the River?”